Ray Donley clearly fancies himself as a man born a few hundred years too late. Seriously, in 2007, who the heck paints lush, moody oils of aristocratic types in funny hats? Well, Ray Donley does, that's who. Modern art—with its heavy concepts and its blobs and squares—that stuff just ain't for Donley. Donley is so old-school you could almost believe he studied at the feet of Caravaggio.
Donley's latest exhibition, at the Sarah Bain Gallery in Anaheim, is an undeniably gorgeous affair. You get a little of the same feeling you get when you're up close to the work of the old masters: The faces stare out at you from the blackness, burning with life, the skin so tactile you want to reach out and touch their cheeks (not to mention some ?of their other parts—Donley paints some seriously sexy, old-timey maidens). Donley has plainly studied hard to master his ?art, and nobody will walk away from this show un-dazzled.
Donley: work worthy of the old masters. Courtesy Sarah Bain Gallery. Click the image for more art from the exhibit.
That being said, the allure of Donley's work is all on the surface. As ravishingly lovely as his figures are, frankly, that's about all they are. While they all have a vaguely haunted look, it's not the kind of haunted that makes you all that curious to learn their secrets. If they could talk, they don't look like they'd have much to say. We detect no great insight into humanity here. Donley tries to force a bit of drama, but the results are usually unpersuasive at best, downright silly at worst. The Sorcerer looks way too much like Beck gesturing at us hypnotically while sporting a pointy wizard hat. (Donley calls these figures Los Bien Perdidos, or the profoundly lost ones. Well, The Sorcerer is certainly a loser, baby—so why don't you kill him?)
Again, I don't mean to suggest that Donley isn't enormously talented, or that you shouldn't make time to see this show. If you get loopy for representation, for a sensual finish, for the kind of art the world hasn't seen much of since the Medicis fell out of power, well, Donley is your boy. But if you're looking for art with real smarts, art with some humor, art that innovates and challenges—for art that's not just there to look damn fine—that's just not what Donley's about. Donley's art is lodged so far up the past that it can't see a future.
Now, Terry Turrell is my kind of throwback. Turrell's fascinating sculptures—now on display alongside the work of Inez Storer at Sue Greenwood Fine Art—are so primitive, they almost look like pre-Bronze Age relics, but they're suffused with a strangeness that is all Turrell's own. Many of Turrell's figures are so elongated they look like they're about to teeter right off their crazy giraffe legs, but their expressions are rather eerily serene. The title of Out of Reach is sweetly apt, depicting an unfortunate mutant with a distended torso, legs that go on for about three miles and itty-bitty baby arms. His tiny hands strain for something above him, his pale face lifted longingly to the heavens. It's like watching somebody hold a piece of tempting candy over the head of a deformed but nevertheless adorable child, and you want to say,"Hang on, little guy! I'll get it for you!" One Step Ahead depicts a fellow with limbs of relatively average length, but he has other anatomical peculiarities to worry about; a little winged creature appears to be bursting from his chest, but the pair are tethered together by ropes bound around the man's wrists. Who is this strange guy with the flying monster tied to him? What the heck is that all about? These are the kinds of questions art should be raising!
Turrell's sloppy, pasty paintings are likewise intriguing, and—oh, yeah—Storer's art ain't bad, either. (Don't feel neglected, Inez; it would be hard for anybody else to stand out with the show Turrell is putting on.) Donley's art is an impressive simulacrum of the past. Like Beatlemania, "It's not the real thing . . . but an incredible simulation!" But Turrell's work is timelessly strange—past, present and future, all at once.